The most compelling characters are those who want something desperately and who will do anything to get it, which is why Scarlett O’Hara is such a perennially popular character. Frankly, my dear, I find her a bit over the top—selfish and greedy and way too egocentric. Still, her wanting does make for a compelling character.
At its most basic, a story is about want. The main character wants something, and someone or something is preventing her from getting it. The want can be as simple as a good night’s sleep, as personal as a lover, or as complicated as world peace. In the end, the character gets what she wants or she doesn’t get it. Sometimes she gets what she needs, which is just as satisfying for the reader because such an ending gives a story a sense of rightness, of poetic justice.
BOB STARK, the point-of-view character of More Deaths Than One, wants serenity, though what he gets are nightmares, both the sleeping and the waking kind. Debilitated by headaches, he doesn’t have the energy to discover the truth, but Kerry, a young woman he meets in a coffee shop, goads him into it. When Kerry is threatened, though, he becomes what he needs to be to keep her safe.
A Spark of Heavenly Fire has four point-of-view characters, all of whom want something.
All KATE CUMMINGS wants is a good night’s sleep.
Her husband, a semi-invalid, committed suicide thirteen months ago. Many times during the years of his illness she could have treated him a little better than she did, and she is haunted by her own mean spirit.
Then the red death descends on Colorado, the entire state is quarantined, and martial law is declared. As a patient’s advocate and an insomniac, forty-two-year-old Kate sees more than her share of the horror. People with bright red eyes spewing blood, then falling down—dead. Tanks and trigger-happy troops patrolling the streets. Men in biohazard suits throwing bodies into the back of delivery vans.
Now she wants not to be afraid.
All JEREMY KING wants is to leave Colorado.
He has everything. Two Oscars for best actor. A vast Montana ranch. Wife, son, daughter. He also looks better now, at fifty-eight, than he did when he was young.
Having grown up poor in Grand Junction, he hates Colorado, and only came to Denver to finish a film. As soon as the director yells cut, he’s in his rented Lexus on his way to the private airfield where his jet is supposed to be ready for take-off. It isn’t. Instead, armed National Guardsmen inform him that airspace is restricted. Furious that he’s being treated like one of the peasants, he decides to drive home, but the mountain highway is clogged with a thousand cars going nowhere. He returns to Denver, determined to leave Colorado if it’s the last thing he ever does.
All GREG PULLMAN wants is to know the truth.
Since childhood he’s been consumed with the need to know why creatures act the way they do. It is no different with the red death.
After discovering that the disease is a bio-engineered organism, he tries to find out who would develop such a thing, and why. He learns that despite the ban on bio-warfare experimentation, all over the world deadly organisms are being produced and stockpiled. Bubonic plague. West Nile fever. Green monkey virus. Combinations such as smallpox with Ebola and encephalitis.
Burdened by the awful truth, he turns to his friend Kate for comfort, and finds he wants her, though he is engaged to Pippi O’Brien.
All PIPPI O’BRIEN wants is . . . well, she doesn’t know what she wants.
After college, she wanted a job at a New York television station, but accepted a position as weathergirl in Denver. Now, at thirty, she wants to marry handsome Greg Pullman, but when he takes the hint and proposes, she says she’ll think about it. A few days later, deciding she does love him after all, she says yes. While waiting in a bar for him that very evening, she meets Jeremy King. Feeling the full force of his personality, she leaves with him, forgetting about Greg. Now she has a new dream: lovely consort to the charismatic King.
She is signing autographs with Jeremy on a downtown street when UN soldiers arrive, level their weapons at the assembled fans, and order everyone to drop to the ground. Fighting back the urge to scream, she obeys. Those who don’t obey are immediately gunned down.
Now all she wants is to accompany Jeremy on his quest to escape from Colorado.
So, that’s what the characters of More Deaths Than One and A Spark of Heavenly Fire want. What do your characters want? What do they need? And in the end, do they get what they want, or do they get what they need?
This article is anthologized in the Second Wind Publishing book: NOVEL WRITING TIPS AND TECHNIQUES FROM AUTHORS OF SECOND WIND PUBLISHING, which was the 100th book released by Second Wind.
“As someone who constantly evaluates novels for publication, I was astonished at the breadth and clarity of the wonderful advice contained in this handbook. It addresses concerns as grand as plot development and as simple but essential as formatting your submission. It offers crucial advice on literary topics ranging from character development to the description of action. Virtually every subject that is of great concern to publishers — and therefore to authors — is covered in this clear, humorous and enormously useful guide.” –Mike Simpson, Chief Editor of Second Wind Publishing
Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.